The Earthquakes expended a lot of time and energy over the winter months chasing international players such as Brazilian forward Eduardo, Argentinean midfielder Javier Robles and Trinidadian forward Scott Sealy.
But the newcomer who has made the most impact in 2010 didn’t come from some far-flung address.
At the age of 27 and with five USL seasons under his belt, Joey Gjertsen has finally arrived in MLS. And the Washington native is making the most of it so far, coming off the bench at halftime of the Quakes’ season opener and playing the whole of San Jose’s next two matches, including the U.S. Open Cup qualifier on Wednesday.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve been successful at this level yet, but I’m trying to prove myself every game,” Gjertsen said. “Maybe through two games I’ve done OK, but it’s a long season.”
Gjertsen hasn’t shown up on the score sheet in either of the Quakes’ MLS regular-season games, but it was his hustling run to chase down a soft back pass that caused a breakdown in the Chicago defense in the 49th minute of San Jose’s 2-1 victory last Saturday.
That effort forced an ineffective clearance from charging goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra, which led to San Jose’s Arturo Alvarez gaining possession in front of an empty net. He put it away for the Quakes’ first goal of the season.
“He feels the game well, and you can’t teach that or coach that,” San Jose coach Frank Yallop said of Gjertsen. “You get him in and he does his thing and he really feels what’s going on in the game and does it well.”
Although all three of San Jose’s goalkeepers -- Joe Cannon, Jon Busch and Andrew Weber -- have played in the USL or its forerunner, the A-League, Gjertsen is the only Quakes field player to have worked his way up from the second tier of American and Canadian soccer.
The Tacoma native signed with the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2005 after leaving Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. He immediately earned a spot in the Whitecaps’ lineup and, in his second season, took home the USL’s MVP award after scoring 12 goals for the eventual league champions.
That was when he first came to the attention of Yallop, who was running the Galaxy and tried, unsuccessfully, to lure Gjertsen to Los Angeles.
“I think he would have been ready then,” Yallop said. “I saw him play a good five, six years ago, and he was very similar to what he is now. So I think he could have made the jump, no problem.
Gjertsen, however, was happy enough with his situation to bide his time.
“I was still a young player, the [MLS] reserve league was still around, and I just didn’t want to get lost in the mix,” Gjertsen said. “They had big rosters then. I think had I come up, got lost in the 30-man roster and tried to fight my way in as a young guy, it could have been bad for me. More importantly, though, I was comfortable where I was at, and that was probably the reason why I never left.”
Like dominoes lined up and then knocked over, a series of circumstances fell into place before Gjertsen began seriously considering an MLS jump.
His contract was up, putting him on the free-agent market. His USL team, the Montreal Impact, captured the 2009 title, with Gjertsen starting in all four playoff games and playing a key role in the championship. He was familiar with Yallop and assistant coaches Mark Watson (a former teammate of Gjertsen’s on the Whitecaps) and Ian Russell (a fellow Seattle-area product) and Weber, a teammate in Montreal for 1 1/2 years.
“I felt like maybe I had accomplished everything I could in [the USL],” said Gjertsen, who agreed to terms with the Quakes in January. “I knew some of the players and I thought it could work out. I could come back to the West Coast, so I was all for it.”
San Jose was looking for Gjertsen to help replace the void at right midfield left by losing Shea Salinas to the Philadelphia Union in expansion draft, and he has played there primarily ever since. His energy has been unflagging, even as he logged 120 minutes in the U.S. Open Cup qualifier against Real Salt Lake on Wednesday.
“Coming in, they said they lost [Salinas] and maybe that was a spot where I could help them,” Gjertsen said. “I was going to do anything I could to get that spot. Now that I have it, I’m going to do anything I can to keep it.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @sjquakes.